Bus Rapid Transit options outlined
If Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) comes to Pittsburgh, it could change traffic on Fifth and Forbes avenues and increase the efficiency of mass transit through Oakland.
Presentations by City of Pittsburgh and Port Authority of Allegheny County representatives on April 5 in Alumni Hall sketched out the possibilities, should the city be successful in its September application to the Federal Transit Administration. BRT could be in place by 2021, presenters said.
BRT would place a new style of transportation vehicle — County Executive Rich Fitzgerald described them at the meeting as individual train cars on wheels, powered by rechargeable electric batteries — in their own dedicated lanes on major thoroughfares of the city.
In one possible scenario, the Oakland portion of BRT would retain the current contra-flow bus lane on Fifth Avenue, routing BRT outbound from the city along Fifth against traffic, as buses travel now, and dedicating a second lane for BRT vehicles inbound. Public transit would be removed from Forbes Avenue, something that could affect foot traffic for retailers along that corridor. But this option also would allow a bike lane to be added on Forbes.
In the second Oakland scenario, BRT would have single dedicated lanes moving with traffic on Forbes and Fifth. The current Fifth Avenue contra-flow lane would be turned into a two-way bike lane, potentially allowing for the removal of the fence on Fifth Avenue alongside the Cathedral of Learning and other buildings.
According to Joe Miksch, Pitt director of media relations, “The University hasn’t taken an official position on which route it prefers. … The University wants to hear from students and business operators first.”
Fitzgerald noted the advantages of the BRT system over buses. BRT vehicles, arriving at stations every 3-5 minutes, could carry far more than the 60,000 people a day currently using public transit between Oakland and Downtown. Not only would transportation be more efficient, he said, but navigation of Oakland would be safer for car drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians. Having electric vehicles substitute for buses, and attracting more people to switch from cars to public transportation, also would reduce pollution, Fitzgerald said.
By connecting the two biggest job centers in the region, he said, BRT should really be known as “PRT — it’s a people rapid transit.”
Justin Miller, principal transportation planner for the Department of City Planning, reported that while buses constitute only 4 percent of vehicles on Fifth and Forbes today, they carry 51 percent of the people moving into and out of Oakland. Thus, the most cost-effective way to grow the neighborhood is through BRT, he said.
With BRT, 8,000 people per hour can go into and out of Oakland, whereas today only 2,000 per hour can go through the neighborhood on current mixed transportation lanes.
Buses that use the current contra-flow bus lane on Fifth Avenue, and the buses that travel amid traffic on Forbes, are governed by traffic signals for all vehicles, causing pinch points and the bunching of buses along the route, he said. That leads to unpredictable arrival times and uneven passenger loads.
“It’s certainly a problem we need to address,” Miller said.
“You shouldn’t have to wait more than five minutes during peak hours” for BRT, he added.
The vehicles will have larger doors, lower floors and better stations than the current bus shelters, with canopies, real-time ride information and will, in some places, allow riders to pay for trips prior to boarding.
“It’s not only about the transit,” Miller said. BRT also should spark the installation of improved crosswalks, better lighting, more nearby parking amenities and bike-sharing stations, bike-storage facilities and bike lanes, he said.
Outside of Oakland, BRT may extend along several other routes, according to other options the Port Authority is considering: to Shadyside and Wilkinsburg; to Squirrel Hill and Greenfield, and/or to Highland Park, although the streets along these latter routes are not large enough to accommodate a dedicated BRT lane.
Amy Silbermann, senior analyst from the Port Authority’s Department of Planning and Evaluation, noted that 19 different bus routes pass through Oakland currently.
These buses would discharge their passengers at BRT stations, allowing them to transfer to BRT vehicles, should Pittsburgh be granted federal money for the project.